The Best Black Actors of All-Time…From A Millennial’s Perspective 

Denzel Washington, Black Actor

When thinking about making a list of the best Black actors of all-time, and then looking at our history in this field, I was astounded by just how far back we go and how excellent at the craft we have been given the many harms and hurdles that have been put in the path of Black people in Hollywood. But of course, we always make lemonade out of lemons. 

However, with so many talented Black actors (emphasis on actors, not actresses–we’ll cover black actresses in a separate post) to have graced our screens over the years, I need to narrow down the pool of options to some degree. In part, this was because I simply couldn’t watch everything from everyone. But also, it’s already hard enough saying one actor was better than this other actor in another movie in the same year, so it’s 10x as hard to make those types of judgements across generations, technologies and centuries.

Thus, I’ll limit this particular list to the only perspective that matters: a millennials!

While most millennials will tell you they know everything about Michael Jordan, it’s a complete lie. At best, they were four years old when they entered the league, and so there’s no way the could’ve understood the everyday chatter, gossip, news, feats, and sayings that occurred throughout his career. Millennials actually know Kobe and LeBron much better. Those are the basketball players of our generation. It’s not just because we saw them play, but it’s because we saw them every day, heard what they had to say, knew the precise drama that went into every game they started, and lived through the anxiety of each bump in the road they experienced.

It’s really know different when talking about our Black actors. They are the ones who made the Black TV shows we grew up on. They made the movies we fell asleep to. They made us feel things that we could only experience vicariously through the characters they played, inspiring us to do things we may not have had the vision to do otherwise.

So this list is for you millennials. Here the greatest Black actors of our generation. Salute to them!

1. Denzel Washington

If we’re going to compare this conversation to that of a basketball one, then Denzel is clearly the Michael Jordan of this game. Plus, like LeBron, he’s also one of the few Black actors that you can talk about and only use his first name. Thus, he takes the number one spot on this list. His 2 Oscar wins for “Glory” (Best Supporting Actor) and “Training Day” (Best Actor) make him the most accomplished Black actor of our generation. And when you throw in the 20 overall Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, it’s pretty much a one-actor race.

And yet, it doesn’t stop there. Denzel’s filmography reads like a millennials list of favorite 90’s Black movies. Who didn’t love Denzel, alongside Wesley Snipes, in Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues”…? His titular role in “Malcolm X” was the first time most of us discovered that movies didn’t have to be this cookie-cutter experience that it had largely become in the 80s. “Devil in a Blue Dress” was a weird one, but I mess with it. Denzel and Whitney Houston were amazing in “The Preacher’s Wife”. And when you end the the decade–just the 90’s we’re talking about–with “He Got Game” and “Remember the Titans”, how can you not be the G.O.A.T.?

2. Eddie Murphy

Don’t y’all come for me! I’m standing by this. Eddie Murphy is the second best Black actor of our generation, and I’m not sure it should even be up for debate. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that Eddie is the funniest actor, Black or white, of all-time. I’m just not sure that there is another actors in the world that has made as many people laugh as much as he has–not including standup–just through his acting.

Eddie Murphy’s on-screen career really only got going in 1980, when he arrived at “Saturday Night Live” and effectively saved the show from cancellation. That’s a little early for millennials to really have appreciated him, right? Wrong! Unlike Michael Jordan, where you had to experience him live to really appreciate him, millennials had the benefit of growing up in an era where we only had so much choice, and one of the best choices we had was to watch great TV shows and movies from the past on VHS, cable premieres, and Showtime. Thus, even though most of us couldn’t read by the time “Trading Places” came out in 1983, we all still saw it. We still say 1984’s “Beverly Hills Cop”. We got caught up on the weird ass “The Golden Child” movie, “Beverly Hills Cop II”, “Coming to America”, and even “Beverly Hills Cop III”. Then Eddie took it up another notch on us by bringing a new flair to his acting and productions with titles like “Harlem Nights”, “Boomerang”, and “Vampire in Brooklyn”.

I could go on and on as Eddie moved into the family realm with “The Nutty Professor”, “Doctor Dolittle”, “Shrek”, and “Norbit”, but just like Jordan, I don’t believe in running up the score when the game is already over.

3. Forest Whitaker

Talk about a true thespian, Forest Whitaker is one of the best. Having studied the craft at USC’s Drama Conservatory, with courses also at the London Drama Studio, the man was prepped with the talent to become one of the greats early on his career. And so he did, grabbing over 130 roles in Hollywood to-date, with only more to come.

The most notable movies include “The Butler”, “Bird”, and of course, “The Last King of Scotland”, for which Forest Whitaker became the fourth Black man ever to win the Oscar for Best Actor. Whitaker has also made appearances in “Bloodsport”, “The Great Debaters”, and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”. Most recently, Whitaker has been crushing it on television with his role as Bumpy Johnson on Epix’s original series, “Godfather of Harlem”.

4. Samuel L. Jackson

I’m sure you all are tired of the sports and basketball analogies, so this will be the last one. But I’d be remiss not to say that if ever there was the equivalent of a volume shooter when it comes to acting, Samuel L. Jackson is the greatest volume shooter of all-time. He’s basically the Carmelo Anthony of the Screen Actors Guild. A quick look at Jackson’s IMDb reveals that he’s been in over 200 movies and TV shows. And while he certainly started well before millennials were even in a thought in our parents’ minds, his many, sometimes short, but always transcendent, roles were the stuff of legends for young Black millennials.

He was amazing in minor roles in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, “Coming to America”, “Goodfellas”, “Roc”, “Juice”, “Strictly Business”, “Menace II Society”, and “Mo’ Better Blues”, “Deep Blue Sea”, many of which he often stole the movie with his short performances!

As for the big roles, Sam delivered in “School Daze”, “Jurassic Park”, “Losing Isaiah”, “Pulp Fiction”, “Eve’s Bayou”, “Jackie Brown”, “Rules of Engagement”, “Shaft”, “Star Wars: Episode II”, “The Negotiator”, “Soul Men”, “Iron Man”, “Django Unchained”, and “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey”.

Seriously, does anyone have a longer list of incredible performances than this man?

5. Will Smith

Okay. One more basketball reference, which is to say ask whether Will Smith is the Latrell Sprewell of acting…?

No, not in that way! I’m talking about the fact that there was a moment in time in the NBA, after Michael Jordan retired, when everybody was looking around for who was going to take that throne. In the immediate aftermath, it was Sprewell that would take Jordan’s spot on the All-NBA team, as the best shooting guard in the league. It’s quite possible, that had someone like Denzel Washington retired much earlier, and Will Smith had a few do-overs on movies selections (much like Latrell Sprewell wished he had a few personal do-overs), it is Smith that could have been at the top of the list.

After all, when Denzel went without a major role of note from 1992 (“Malcolm X”) to 1996 (“The Preacher’s Wife”), or one might argue even longer, until 1999 when he got his next Oscar nomination (“The Hurricane”), it was a young Will Smith that was starring in “Six Degrees of Separation”, “Independence Day”, “Bad Boys”, “Men in Black”, and of course, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, that he might’ve been the hottest actor in the game. And there’s no doubt that his performance as “Muhammad Ali”, as maligned as it may have been by some, was extremely close to winning the Oscar in what would’ve been one year before Denzel won his for “Training Day”.

Unfortunately, some really bad choices in scripts have marred Will Smith’s career. Everything from “I Robot” and “Hancock”, to “I Am Legend” and “After Earth” have been seriously questioned.

Still, he’s mixed in some really great performances that show he is an amazing actor himself, with roles in “The Legend of Bagger Vance”, “Aladdin”, “The Pursuit of Happyness”, and of course, “King Richard”, in which he won his first and only Oscar in 2022.

6. Wesley Snipes

Wesley Snipe is not a volume shooter, and he’s not exactly a sharp shooter, but with the game on the line, you want him in that role, as Snipes will surely bring home the performance you’re looking for.

Now like all great thespians, Snipes got his screen debut on the soap opera “All My Children”. From there, it was a “Miami Vice”, “Vietnam War Story”, and a Michael Jackson music video (“Bad”) that would be the only stepping stones he needed to make it to the big leagues.

In fact, I mean that almost literally, as his first big movie role was in “Major League”, a true classic. That caught the attention of the director of the times, Spike Lee, and he would go on to “Mo’ Better Blues”, and “Jungle Fever”, both of which let us know that Wesley Snipes had arrived. After that, Snipes would star in other classic 90’s Black movies like “New Jack City”, “Passenger 57”, “Demolition Man”, “Blade”, and my favorite role of his, “White Men Can’t Jump”.

7. Don Cheadle

Not many people would put him in the top 10, but I don’t see how Cheadle doesn’t make the cut. He is one of the most versatile Black actors of all-time, and he has climbed a mountain of achievements that few have reached. I remember him first in a guest role on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,”, but he also did his thing in an episode of “Hill Street Blues” in 1987. Nevertheless, he would get his breakout opportunity in “Ocean’s Eleven”, which would lead to an opportunity to star, just two years later, in “Hotel Rwanda”. In a Oscar-worthy performance, and dare I say opportunity, that came out of nowhere, Cheadle killed it, and the rest was history. Roles in “Talk to Me”, “Brooklyn’s Finest”, the “Iron Man” franchise and spinoffs, and my favorite, “House of Lies”, have cemented Cheadle as one of the best actors of our time.

8. Jamie Foxx

I know Jamie doesn’t have the super long resume or the thespian status of most others on this list, but he gave us a quick burst of talent that was undeniable. His effect on “In Living Color” was pretty much the equivalent of what Eddie Murphy did for “Saturday Night Live”, except he may have done it better, with less help from a smaller network, and for a specifically Black audience. Like the other Black actors, he took that start and ran with it. He would go on to star in “Booty Call”, switch it up a little on us in “The Player’s Club”, killed it in “Any Given Sunday”, and kept us all laughing on a nightly basis, for the better part of 5 years, with “The Jamie Foxx Show”, form 1996 to 2001.

9. Idris Elba

Fair or unfair, this is going to be a very Americanized version of Idris Elba’s success; although, I’ll spare him the basketball comparisons given his native country doesn’t really get down on the hardwood like that. Of course, the role we all know him for, Stringer Bell on “The Wire”, which is indeed a Black TV Show, was probably a bit of a hooper on those Baltimore streets. Before “The Wire”, Elba had a couple guest appearances on shows like “Soul Food” and “Law & Order”, but it was the Baltimore soap opera that ultimately made him a name we needed to know.

Believe it or not, that was just 3-year stint, with the second year relatively low-key for him. Once his character was killed off, it was on to bigger things. Three years later we would see him in both “Daddy’s Little Girls”, “American Gangster”, and “This Christmas”–all classic Black movies. He had a fun run in “The Office”, and a nice stint on “The Big C”. After that, it was his titular role in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” that probably made him a star. From there, Idris Elba blew up in the “Avengers”/”Thor” franchise, has his long-running role in “Luther”, and had an award-winning role in “Beasts of No Nation”.

10. Morgan Freeman

Most of you probably fail to remember that Morgan Freeman won an Oscar in 2005 for his role in “Million Dollar Baby” (Best Supporting). The man has put in so much work that we often forget some of the greatness he’s put out there. But allow me to remind you.

Obviously, Mr. Freeman has been around for a long time (b. 1937), so his filmography has quite the mileage on it. It’s on record that his first roles came in the 1960’s, but his most notable early appearances are likely a guest spot on “Sesame Street” in 1974, and a long-running recurring role in the 70s variety show, “The Electric Company”. From there, Morgan would do a slew of TV movies, finally getting his biggest break in “Street Smart” (1987), at the age of 50, playing a hustler, a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting.

And then the floodgates opened. It was “Lean on Me”, “Driving Miss Daisy”, and “Glory”, all within 3 years of that breakout role, all in the late 1980s. In the 90s, the hits kept on coming with “Robin Hood”, “Unforgiven”, “Outbreak”, “Chain Reaction”, “Deep Impact”, the stunning tale of “Amistad”, in which he played Theodore Joadson, and of course, “The Shawshank Redemption”, where he played “Red”.

Of course, I’m sure there are many who might disagree with our (i.e. “my”) list of best Black actors. And if that’s the case, please let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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